How to Build a Backbone in 3 Easy Steps

GoodTherapy | How to Build a Backbone in 3 Easy StepsDo you allow others to take advantage of you? Do you avoid speaking up for yourself? Well, now’s the time to build your backbone! One that works, doesn’t wobble, and gets stronger when used.

What is a backbone, anyway? A backbone is a symbol of strength in character, an unwillingness to be used or taken for granted, and a firm commitment to uphold one’s decisions and feelings. We’ve all seen and heard of people who have a backbone; they are the strong ones, the ones who get what they want.

How do you know if you have a backbone? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you resent someone in your life?
  2. Do you feel taken advantage of?
  3. Do you often complain but nothing changes?
  4. Do you keep all of your emotions in?
  5. Do you avoid conflict?
  6. Have you said yes when you meant no?
  7. Have you allowed your anger to build up and come out in other ways?
  8. Have you compromised self-care for others-care?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you could use a backbone adjustment!

First, let’s understand why backbone building is so hard. Often, we’ve been hurt and have learned to give in to avoid a conflict or, worse, getting hurt even further. Another possible reason we may not use our backbone is that we lack self-esteem and confidence. But it costs us in the long run: we don’t speak up, we don’t make waves, and we allow ourselves to be treated disrespectfully in order to keep the peace.

The benefits of a backbone are many. A backbone, or confidence in our strength, allows us to feel:

  • respected, not used and taken advantage of
  • in control of our lives
  • empowered, not belittled
  • secure, not second guessing ourselves
  • confident that we’ve created a life plan—and live it

We may feel a compromised sense of strength in our marriages, our parenting, our work, with our extended family, or with ourselves. In our marriages, our strength is compromised when we ignore important issues, stop communicating, and don’t speak honestly. Similarly, when we are disrespected at work or when parenting, and the issue isn’t resolved, we may feel walked on and relationships may suffer. Our extended family exposes a compromised backbone when we don’t communicate our needs properly to them, when we are available even when our schedule does not allow for it, and when others dictate our lives. We can be compromised with ourselves as well. Haven’t we all been irresponsible, ignored truths, and improperly cared for ourselves?

There are three easy steps to strengthening your backbone.

Deal, Heal, and Reveal

The first step, dealing, means observing when we are being backbone-less. Make a mental note when you shrink, when you feel lowered, and when you inappropriately compromise. Think of the consequences of speaking up, saying no, or quitting. What’s the worst that can happen? Can you deal with the discomfort? If yes, move to step two. If not, repeat step one until you feel stronger.

Step two is about healing. Using your instincts or your gut reaction, make a small decision and stand by it. Say no once. Next, make a few more decisions and say no a few more times. Do not ruminate on past mistakes and decisions. Keep going. Feel yourself getting stronger. Now you know better, and you’ll do better.

Step three is to reveal the new, updated version of you—backbone intact! Use your newfound character firmness to create a life plan with balance and reciprocity. As you gain strength and stand straighter, others will notice. You’ll be respected more, you’ll have more self-esteem, and you’ll no longer be allowing your life to be determined by others. Get out there and grow your backbone!

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Angela Avery, MA, LLPC, NCC, Obsessions and Compulsions / OCD Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • melissa

    December 15th, 2014 at 10:45 AM

    I think that what I fear more than anything else is that when I do reveal the new and improved me, for that Is what I see this as, an improvement, then the people that have always known me as the pushover won’t want to be friends with me anymore. I should be alright with this because I know in my heart that there are several of them that use me exactly because of this, but it still hurts.

  • Holly

    December 15th, 2014 at 3:10 PM

    If people aren’t accustomed to you standing up for yourself, then you better hold on tight because this could get a little bumpy. Those who have been using you and taking advantage of you probably won’t like the new changes that they see at all.

  • Deborah

    May 28th, 2016 at 3:39 AM

    I find myself in this situation much.

  • harley

    December 16th, 2014 at 3:46 AM

    So I have never been that person who could not stand up for himself or lacked a backbone so to speak. My problem has always been the opposite, finding some way to compromise with others so that I am not constantly running over them and taking charge even when the time is not so right for me to do that. I have had to learn about backing off a little instead of always standing up. It can be great to know that you stand up for what you believe in and that no one is going to get anything over on you… but at the same time it can also be good to know that you know when to back off a little and let others take control.

  • Angela Avery, MA, LLPC, NCC

    December 16th, 2014 at 5:32 AM

    Melissa and Holly, you are right. When we change, then those in our life who haven’t been supportive may push back, wanting you to be like you were before. But hold strong, stay respectful and they will have no choice but to learn from you how to live a healthy life.

  • grabrel k.

    October 30th, 2017 at 2:42 PM

    I have an issue and that is to have backbone any solutions

  • gena

    December 16th, 2014 at 10:49 AM

    I practice conflict avoidance at all costs. The cost is generally to me but it feels much safer and more secure that way

  • Reece

    December 16th, 2014 at 1:28 PM

    I know that there are those of us who think that saying yes all of the time is doing someone somewhere good, but guess what? The person that you are actually hurting is you. Yes, I know that it feels good to be useful to others but think about it this way- is this a person who would reciprocate and do the same things for you? I at least feel like you should have the people in your life sacrificing for you while you are doing the same for them. Just make sure that if you are making the needs of others a priority that they are doing the same thing for you.

  • Linda M

    December 16th, 2014 at 9:14 PM

    Great article,Angela.So many times I feel like I’ve been taken for granted and taken advantage of.When I look back at events that occurred a few hours ago I can totally articulate how I should have responded and what I should have said.But next time a similar situation occurs,I give in again and the same repeats.

    I would be extremely thankful if you could please help me find a way through which I can stop this cycle.I know I am wrong and need to change my response and can totally figure out what to say,but only after the incident has passed.How do I speed up my thought process to have an appropriate but taking-a-stand response then and there?

  • John B

    December 20th, 2014 at 10:54 PM

    Working on this issue in my current therapy after being taught a lifetime of accommodation lessons. I believe that many of us are discouraged from developing a backbone from parents, schools, clergy, sports coaches, bosses, coworkers, etc. Most of us are rewarded in life for docile obedience, subservience and acquiescence. I am learning assertive behavior and boundaries, but I have NO RESPECT for the world’s institutions who taught me to be a passive accommodator addicted to self-denial.

  • edna

    December 22nd, 2014 at 1:56 PM

    You make it all sound so easy… but I always have this fear that if I stand up for what I think is right for me than I will lose my friends in the process. How can I make sure that I have that backbone and stand up for myself while not alienating the ones that I love?

  • Deb

    December 29th, 2014 at 10:01 AM

    The first step for me was learning boundaries ! I didn’t even know what they were 3 years ago . Get with a good therapist and work on boundaries and read everything you can on them . Without them the cycle of low self esteem and not having a backbone will continue . Just my opinion .

  • Faith

    May 5th, 2015 at 12:45 PM

    Im just a pushover and i dont know why im afraid to have friends because im always hurt in the end my relationship makes me feel like im truly nothing like im not even human i try to make everyone happy

  • Kia

    February 1st, 2019 at 5:43 AM

    Wow this is me….I am very passive. I allow people to talk to me any kind of a way. I know that it’s wrong to let people walk over me and I allow it. I am the yes person never says no when in all honesty I want to say no. I compromise so much because I don’t want to lose a friend but the so call friend is really a enemy. I find myself not being true to my true self. I wrestle with this all the time…. I always show love and never is it received back. I I am starting to see who is for me even when I come into their presence. I am learning to take control of my happy by not getting so overwhelmed and stop being so passive. I am starting to stand up for myself and I don’t care if I lose friends in the process. I wanted to fit in with people…..I a finding out maybe this who GOD created me to be is to stand out. It’s a very lonely uncomfortable place to be in…..

  • Aj

    November 20th, 2020 at 3:19 AM

    Great article! Very helpful! Thank you!

  • Brian

    January 24th, 2023 at 11:50 AM

    I think it’s worth noting that YOU also need to like the new you with a backbone. If you enjoy your friends and they’re overstepping is really more of THEIR blind spot, maybe it’s okay to be the fun person who is known to be generous with their time. My two friends that are too quick (IMO) to ask for favors, I usually have to do some clever response to their potential egregious asks. Example: THEM “Hey, what are you doing Saturday?” ME: “I have tentative plans that may fall through. What do you have in mind?” That gives me an easy out instead of a backbone-like response “Sorry, I won’t help you pick up a great couch from Craigslist that’s just 200 miles away.” [Even writing that stressed me out. I would probably cave!]

    Apologies if this was an unhelpful comment. The article and solutions here-in are really about those who really see a need to have more backbone, and I seem to fall on the side of “I’m happy with my soft backbone, but this article has given me some thought. Will continue to mull this over.”

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